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$2.2M S. Fourth renovation to bring Ruth's Chris Steak House to Ann Arbor

The S. Fourth Ave. building that housed the former Dream Nite Club is getting a major renovation, and the south side of downtown Ann Arbor will be getting a new restaurant with the $2.2 million development of a Ruth's Chris Steak House. The project came together after the development team that worked on a Ruth's Chris in Grand Rapids decided to give the franchise another go.

"It was very successful and well received and that team decided tot look for another market that was similar," says Steve Fry of Concept Design, the architectural firm working on the project. "Ann Arbor sort of stood out as a good possibility." 

Finding the right size building available downtown was a challenge, but the vacant nightclub was selected for its potential to become the structure they need. The one-story, approximately 8,200 square foot building will be totally renovated, including the addition of a 1,700 square foot second level. 

"This building did fit for size, shape good location," Fry says. 'We basically approached this as having potential by completely renovating and bring it back to life."

Fry also hopes the timing of the renovation will coincide with the neighboring properties coming back to life a well. He believes residential or hotel use of the recently sold city property across the street would be a great complement to the restaurant. 

The project is pending approval by the Ann Arbor city council next month. Should it be approved, Fry says the plan is to move quickly, with a goal of opening the new Ruth's Chris by end of the year.

Source: Steve Fry, Concept Design
Writer: Natalie Burg

Natural, homemade ice cream coming to W. Liberty with Blank Slate Creamery

When she was in her 20s, Janice Sigler thought about opening an ice cream shop. After two decades working for the University of Michigan, the idea came back to her. 
 
"I just decided to do something completely different," she says. "I went out to Massachusetts to work with someone out there who makes their own ice cream, just to get a sense of whether or not it would be something I wanted to do."
 
It was. Sigler is now renovating the building she purchased on W. Liberty and S. First St into Blank Slate Creamery, an ice cream store specializing in natural ingredients. Rather than including emulsifiers and other chemicals, Sigler's treats will be made from cream, cane sugar, milk and eggs — as well as a number of interesting, all natural flavors.  
 
"We have a coffee flavor that we're using Mighty Good coffee in, a pistachio with actual roasted pistachios pureed in the mix, and I've been experimenting with rice krispie treat," Sigler says. "One of the unusual sorbets cactus pear, which is bright pink naturally, so it's very pretty."
 
Renovations on the 1,300 square foot space include adding interior walls, counter seating, some windows, as well as a pasteurizing and ice cream making room that will be visible to customers when they visit. Sigler intends a great customer experience to be part of Blank Slate Creamery, and is hoping to hire a staff of up to 10 employees who are creative and will engage with kids in the store.
 
Sigler has long term plans for her new downtown building as well. Eventually, she and her husband plan to convert the second floor into a living space and become downtown residents above their ice cream shop. 
 
Blank Slate Creamery is slated to open in June.

Source: Janice Sigler, Blank Slate Creamery
Writer: Natalie Burg

Jerusalem Garden to quadruple size in former Seva location

Ali Ramlawi has long known Jerusalem Garden needed to grow. Last year, he planned an expansion of the Fifth Ave. location where his family's restaurant has been for nearly 30 years, but couldn't come to a deal with his landlord. Perhaps the plan simply wasn't meant to be, as it was followed by a rare opportunity to grow into a location that was not only nearby, but was also the home of another Ann Arbor institution: Seva. 

"We've been here for 27 years. It's hard to leave something like this," Ramlawi. "But people love the charm of that place. It's unique, it's funky, and it's a natural fit. It's an organic way to grow."

The move around the corner may not be far, but the 4,500 square foot location will quadruple Jerusalem Garden's footprint. Ramlawi expects the new restaurant will allow him to seat about 100 diners, double his employees to make a staff of 45, and consolidate some of his operations that currently take place in another facility. 

"It's nice to bring everything under one roof," says Ramlawi. "I'll be able to have more capacity for people to sit, and to expand our catering the University of Michigan. We'll have some room to breathe."

Ramlawi plans to undergo a complete buildout of the space, and is aiming for New Year's to open in the new location. Though he was worried customers might be upset about change coming to the restaurant, thus far, he says he's been delighted by all of the positive feedback he's received.

Source: Ali Ramlawi, Jerusalem Garden
Writer: Natalie Burg

Gift of Life Michigan to double facility size with $12.3M expansion

Gift of Life Michigan has been saving lives for more than 40 years. By next year, they'll be doubling the footprint of their headquarters in Ann Arbor to amplify the quality of and access to organ transplants in our state. A 50,000 square foot, $12.3 million expansion is planned for the organization's Research Park Rd. facility that will connect two existing buildings, and provide room for a surgical center, 250-seat auditorium and memorial area for donor families. 

"There are three things in healthcare that one can always improve upon," says Gift of Life Michigan CEO Richard Pietroski. "There is reducing costs…improving access to a scarce resource, and improving quality. With all our processes centralized, we'll be doing all of that."

With a staff of about 200, Gift of Life now sends teams of employees all over the state. With 145 hospitals of varying resources, coordination can be difficult. With surgical capabilities at Gift of Life's facility, donors can instead be transported to one location for a more streamlined process. 

"About seven years ago, we had an organ recovery team from U-M involved in a plane crash," says Pietroski. "Nationwide, that's something that's happened frequently enough that I'd rather transfer the donor than have teams fly. It's a service to the transplant center and their teams."

While about six months of rezoning and property line changes will preceed construction, Pietroski anticipates construction to be complete by Sept. 2015. About six full-time positions and several more part-time positions will be created by the new facility. 

Currently, 3,300 Michiganders are registered organ donors, indicated by a red heart on their drivers' license. People can become organ donors by visiting the Gift of Life Michigan website.

Source: Richard Pietroski, Gift of Life Michigan
Writer: Natalie Burg

Two new Mighty Good mini-locations opening this spring

Food carts are often used as an incubation process for new food businesses to get their bearings and test the market before investing in a permanent location. Though Mighty Good Coffee has been a destination for coffee connoisseurs a remote workers for years now, owner  David Myers still sees his forthcoming presence at Mark's Carts as a similar venture. 

"Four blocks is a long way away in terms of pedestrian traffic," he says. "I think there is an opportunity for us to do well in an corridor that gets a lot of traffic that doesn't necessarily cross Huron St. For me, it's relatively low risk, and there is no retail space available right now, so why not try not try something?"

The Mighty Good Coffee cart could join Mark's Carts as early as this Friday, should all of their equipment arrive on time. It will only be the first of two new ventures for the coffee maker, however, as Myers is also working on a mini-coffee shop inside Two Wheel Tango on Jackson Rd.

"The coffee shop inside a retail space is a trend that has been growing for a few years," Myers says. "I'd been looking for a place for coffee on the far west side, so I called [Dennis Pontius] up one day and said would you ever consider this. We were off and running."

The Two Wheel Tango location will include a coffee bar, about six tables and a menu similar to what is now available at the original Mighty Good shop. The Mark's Cart shop will offer a slightly pared down menu. Both locations will open at 7 am, which Myers hopes will further activate the spaces, which currently open later in the morning. 

Three new staff members have already been hired to manage the Mighty Good cart, and Myers anticipates hiring two more for the Two Wheel Tango location, which is slated to open in May. 

Source: David Myers, Mighty Good Coffee
Writer: Natalie Burg

Longtime family bakery in Pinckney to open new location in downtown Chelsea

Pinckney Bakery owners Kim and Saing Yam weren't looking to open a second location, but when they came across the space in downtown Chelsea left by cupcake maker Glee, both the building and the timing seemed right. 

"It's a coincidental thing," says Kim Yam. "The cupcake lady closed down, and I told my husband to go look. It wasn't planned."

Though unplanned, a second location isn't unprecedented for the Yams. They owned the Dexter Bakery for 17 years before deciding to cut back and spend more time with their kids about five years ago. Now that their kids are older, the Chelsea location seemed like a good opportunity. 

"The only thing we'll do different than in Dexter, is we don't do bread," Yam says. "We have pastries, pretzels, cookies — everything, you name it, and we bake fresh every day."

Yam hopes to open the Chelsea Bakery in the second week of April, initially hiring a staff of two for the store. They are now renovating the 2,000 square foot space, putting in new flooring and countertops. Yam plans to include space for seating inside the bakery.

Source: Kim Yam, Pinckney Bakery
Writer: Natalie Burg

STUFD promises big meals, affordable prices for EMU community

Though Joel Hamami recently graduated from Eastern Michigan University, his big plans for the future won't take him too far from campus. In fact, his forthcoming restaurant with partner Zack Ruthven, STUFD, will be right across the street. 
 
"Eastern's campus lacks a couple of things right now. There aren't many places to go for a quick burrito," Hamami says. "We are trying to stay connected to Eastern, looking to be involved with the athletics teams and orientation."
 
The STUFD concept is to offer diners inexpensive burritos, chimichangas, tacos, nachos and quesadillas with a variety of toppings and add-ons. A number of menu items will come with a "STUFD" option, which, according to the menu, "is available for the consumer who is not satisfied with just being full."
 
Hamami is now in the process of renovating the 2,200 square foot space, and is hoping to open April 5. He plans to hire a staff of about 10, and offer both delivery and dine-in eating for about 50 diners.
 
While his current focus is the success of this location, Hamami hopes to expand in the future, opening STUFD restaurants near college campuses elsewhere in Michigan.

Source: Joel Hamami, STUFD
Writer: Natalie Burg

Beloved Birmingham hamburger house picks Ann Arbor for second location

For more than 60 years, Hunter House Hamburgers has been a Metro Detroit favorite, serving oniony sliders from a white pill-box diner in Birmingham. After all that time, the small family restaurant has decided to expand, and downtown Ann Arbor will be the beneficiary of the decision. 

"We had been an institution in the Detroit area for 60 years," says Kelly Cobb, who will operate the new location. "We thought what better way to share than to expand. Ann Arbor was obvious choice."

Cobb will open the new Hunter House on E. William St. in late April or early May. At 2,000 square feet, the restaurant will be about twice the size of the original, but will retain the same diner aesthetic customers are used to in Birmingham. That extra room will allow for some changes to the Hunter House menu. 

"We never really had a chance to grow at the original place because it's so small," says Cobb. "We have a ton of additional kitchen space now."

The Ann Arbor location will offer about a dozen varieties of milkshakes and malts and some additional menu items, but Cobb assures fans of the original that they will also find everything they love from Birmingham as well. 

In addition to dine-in seating, Cobb plans to offer a take-out window and stay open late to serve the downtown market. He anticipates hiring a staff of about 25 for the Ann Arbor location.

Source: Kelly Cobb, Hunter House Hamburgers
Writer: Natalie Burg 

New State St. drive-thru and gas station to break ground this summer

Joseph Kafi has had big plans in mind for the corner of S. State St. and Eisenhower since he purchased the Shell station there five years ago. Now, the demolition and redevelopment project has been approved by the Ann Arbor Planning Commission and could break ground this summer.
 
"This is one of the last hard corners before downtown," Kafi says. "It's a good location, with the mixed commercial uses, Briarwood Mall and other offices nearby."
 
According to the plans, the less than 1,000 square foot convenience store and existing car wash will be demolished to make way for a new, 4,250 square foot development that will include a larger retail store and a restaurant with a drive thru. Though a restaurant brand has not yet been chosen for the location, Kafi says he is in talks with a number of national chains and expect it will be a bakery/cafe concept. 
 
The expanded retail space will also grow in terms of its offerings. In addition to snacks, the store will offer a larger selection of grocery items, electronic accessories and sportswear. 
 
"It's basically for quick visits on the go," Kafi says, "for someone who may need anything from nail polish remover to chips." 
 
Should the project be approved by city council and construction proceed as planned, Kafi hopes construction will be complete by fall of this year. He intends to retain the convenience store staff for the new store, and hopes to continue offering gas throughout construction. 
 
Source: Joseph Kafi, JAK Cubed, LCC
Writer: Natalie Burg

Livonia Builders to bring 32 condos to Carpenter Rd.

New brownstone-style living opportunities will be available in Pittsfield Twp. next year or the following. The 32-unit project, called The Enclave at Arbor Ridge may develop into condos or apartments, depending on the market when they're ready for occupancy. Looking at the current market, they very well could at least begin as apartments.
 
"The rental market is fantastic," says developer Danny Veri of Livonia Builders. "They're set up so that we could switch them to condos at any time. I might flip them sometime in the future, maybe in five or 10 years."
 
Either way, The Enclave at Arbor Ridge will include two- and three-bedroom brownstones ranging from around 1,500 to 1,600 square feet. Though the market will determine the final rental rates, Veri estimates they will be around $1,450 to $1,600 per month. 
 
"I think we're going to pull young professionals," Veri says. "There are a lot of university employees, hospital employees and grad students in the area."
 
The location was chosen for its freeway access, as well as its surroundings. The one-acre development will sit on an eight-acre site, which includes woods and wetland. Veri anticipates residents enjoying the tranquility provided by the undeveloped area of the property, which sits on the corner of Carpenter Rd. and Cloverland Dr. 
 
With other development projects underway and planned for the area, Livonia Builders plans to begin construction on The Enclave at Arbor Ridge in 2015, which will last approximately one year. 

Source: Danny Veri, Livonia Builders
Writer: Natalie Burg

Local Mexican restaurant family grows to three with Los Amigos Fiesta

The owners of Los Amigos and Don Juan Mexican Bar & Grill in Ann Arbor weren't necessarily looking for a space to open a third location, but when it fell into their lap, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. 
 
"[The owners of Maiz] were offering to sell it to us," says manager David Corona. "They had a really nice place, and we are familiar with the area. If we didn't take it, someone else would, so we wanted to be the ones who did." 
 
With the relatively new Maiz restaurant having recently renovated the 220-seat space, it was a quick transition for Corona and his team, who opened Los Amigos Fiesta two weeks ago before many patrons even knew it had changed hands. 
 
"People are coming in without knowing it, and have been saying everything is good, so we're happy with that," Corona says. "A lot of our regular customers have been stopping by as well."
 
According to Corona, knowing the tastes of the Ann Arbor community has been key to the growth of the family of restaurants. A fourth location isn't planned, but as he mentions, neither was Los Amigos Fiesta. The company will always be on the lookout for great opportunities. 
 
The new restaurant offers a menu similar to their existing restaurants, with a focus on authentic Mexican dishes and standout Happy Hour specials. Los Amigos Fiesta employs a staff of about 25, half of which were new hires after Maiz's move to Ypsilanti's Depot Town.

Source: David Corona, Los Amigos Fiesta
Writer: Natalie Burg

Chelsea artist opens upstairs studio on Main St.

Chelsea artist Lindsey Dahl loves nature and vibrant colors. Combining the two has become her trademark style as a painter. Now, with her new Wild Feather Studio, she has the opportunity to create more and larger works, and the public will have the chance to engage with her work as well. 

"There's a lot of foot traffic in Chelsea during the summer, especially during Sounds & Sights on Thursday Nights and the summer festival," says Dahl. "In my new space, I hope to gain more great collectors and clients, as I'm always game for working on custom commissioned pieces."

Wild Feather Studio is above Smokehouse 52 BBQ on Main St. in Chelsea. Dahl moved into the space at the beginning of March, and will soon have signage available to direct people to the studio to see her work. 

"Using non-typical colors in my paintings to show my subjects is so much fun," Dahl says. "Working in this kind of style never gets boring, and I'm constantly learning about color. I think my paintings are very eye-catching, which is helpful to an emerging artist who's trying to get noticed."

Dahl studied fine art at Eastern Michigan University with a focus on painting. She works with acrylics, as well as spray paints, fabric paint and acrylic mediums. Some of her work also incorporates metal, beads and feathers, and she works with both canvas and barn wood.

Source: Lindsey Dahl, Wild Feather Studio
Writer: Natalie Burg

Tablets, year-round learning coming to Ypsilanti with Global Tech Academy

Technology has dramatically changed the global workforce. A new charter school planned for Ypsilanti intends to prepare the next generation of students for it. Global Tech Academy, a partnership between Global Educational Excellence and Eastern Michigan University, will open on E. Forest in August, bringing technology and year-round learning to K-5 students. 
 
"The people I've talked to are very excited," says Global Tech Academy Principal Robin Tolbert. "We have very high expectations. It's definitely going to be a nurturing and welcoming environment."
 
Global Tech Academy has a goal to enroll 200 to 250 students in its first year of operation. Those students will have access to teacher-controlled tablets, as well as textbooks to assist with their learning. Tolbert says the digital technology will aid in learning world languages, as well as prepare the students for the new MEAP test format.
 
The new charter school is the result of Global Educational Excellence research that showed Ypsilanti had a need for more technology-focused education opportunities Tolbert says her love of Ypsilanti as well as the school's focus makes her happy to be a part of it.
 
"I have a love of technology and I'm a long term resident of the community," she says. "I am excited about being a part of educating the students in the community where I went to school."
 
The 14-classroom school is now under renovation. Updates will include improvements to the kitchen, gym and cafeteria, increasing the size of classrooms and creating a parent resource room. A staff of 15 to 20 will be employed at the new school.
 
Source: Robin Tolbert & Mohamad Issa, Global Tech Academy
Writer: Natalie Burg

Little Conductors brings train retail, rental and fun to Chelsea

For the last year Heidi Langenferser and her husband have been renting out their own, homemade trackless train for parties and festivals. As they grew their offerings to include pedal train cars, the pair decided it was time to open a storefront and continue to grow their business. Little Conductors, which opened last week in Chelsea's Oak Tree Plaza, now offers both train rentals and retail. 
 
"We sort of started going in this direction with the train rentals and though it was a cool idea," says Langenferser. "We live in Chelsea and thought this was would be a nice place, right next to the freeway."
 
The 800-square-foot store opened on March 1 after four to five months of locating the right real estate and renovating the space. In addition to the pedal trains and the trackless train built by Lagenferser's husband, Little Conductors offers rentals on train tables for toddlers, Thomas the Train play equipment, as well as train toys and accessories for sale.
 
"We're getting positive feedback," Langenferser says. "People are liking the place."
 
Little Conductors is currently staffed by Langenferser and her husband. Eventually, they plan to grow into a larger space to include a play area. 

Source: Heidi Langenferser, Little Conductors
Writer: Natalie Burg

The customer is king at new Syrian restaurant, Damas

Syria native Jawad Seif may be the owner of the new Damas Restaurant in Woodland Plaza on S. Main St., but he leaves no room for doubt who his boss is. 
 
"The customer is the king," says Seif. "Any customer only has to pay if he likes the food. I'm looking to have a customer that trusts me, and I trust them every time."
 
After moving to Ann Arbor from Syria just a year and a half ago, Seif opened Damas Restaurant on Feb. 17. His Mediterranean style includes the hummus, chicken shawarma and falafel diners expect, as well as specialty items, such as stuffed zucchini and okra with rice. All of his foods, Sief says, will have freshness in common. 
 
"The rule here is that everything must be fresh. Every morning we have new ingredients," Seif says. "I'm happy because most of the customers say it's the best Mediterranean food in Ann Arbor."
 
For Seif, Ann Arbor was the perfect place to open his restaurant, as he says the community loves Mediterranean food and has made his family feel welcome from the first day they arrived. 
 
The 1,800-square-foot restaurant seats 40 and employs a staff of six. Seif decorated Damas himself with decor reminiscent of Syria. 

Source: Jawad Seif, Damas Restaurant
Writer: Natalie Burg
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